For nearly two months, hundreds of asylum seeking men have been arriving in batches to a city-run “respite center” steps away from the Myrtle Broadway JMZ train station, where Bushwick meets Bed-Stuy.
The shelter sits on Stockton Street, in a building that was once earmarked to become a Blink Fitness. Instead of a gym, however, it has become a token in the city’s ongoing asylum crisis. Instead of treadmills and stepmasters, the floors are now lined with cots, attempting to accommodate the ceaseless flow of migrants into the city.
Talking with the men outside the congregate shelter, we quickly realized the situation was dire. Within the walls of this space—journalists were not permitted to enter—the men say they are stacked in crowded rooms without access to showers or proper food. A single bathroom serves an entire floor of around 130 migrants, and four of the building’s seven floors are in use.
Until recently, when a shower trailer had arrived on scene, migrants had no way to clean themselves. For months before, people contorted their bodies to wash their feet and armpits in sinks. The first day we arrived, a group of immigrants told us a man had been expelled from the facility after attempting to bathe himself in toilet water. Another told us the stench of body odor within the building’s elevator drove a worker standing inside to vomit.
“It’s just the tip of the iceberg of the violence that’s being perpetuated by the city towards these asylum seekers,” a community organizer named Nachi Conde-Farley told us.
There are no walls or room dividers to provide privacy, and no lockers to provide storage — migrants say that their most important and precious documents are frequently stolen. During the night, as men sleep, workers there refuse to turn off the lights. Food, when it’s provided, often comes spoiled, cold or both.
As the city fails to keep up with the influx of migrants, the brunt of work has fallen onto community-run mutual aid groups. Local collectives like Comunidad Primero, Bushwick Ayuda Mutua, La Morada, Bushwick City Farm and other independent organizers have been seen out there distributing food, clothes, deodorant and other necessities right across the street from the facility.
But these community efforts can only go so far. Asylum seekers’ concerns go beyond their worry for their next meal. In our conversations with them, we heard the same sentiment, echoed over and over: I need a job, I need a lawyer. The path towards those two necessities remains winding and undefined.
Asylum seekers have one year to apply for asylum, which requires legal help and resources. The majority have a limited grasp of English, few connections within the city, and no experience with the U.S. legal system.
“The journey is not over when you cross the borders. It is actually just starting,” one asylum-seeking man, originally from Mauritania, told us in Arabic.
Top image taken by Katey St John.
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